Open Source use in Early Childhood Education

As part of the IBM KidSmart (PDF) program the New Zealand Open Source Society has provided copies of popular Open Source programs to over three hundred Kindergartens and Child Care centres throughout New Zealand. We have used the ISO CD images from The OpenCD project in the past and will use the images from The OpenDisc project in the future.

While IBM have been very generous with the KidSmart donation program, which includes an initial set of educational software programs, as we all know there are ongoing operational costs with Microsoft Windows based IT solutions. Examples of this are the aquisition costs for word processing applications as well as ongoing costs for antivirus, antispyware and the constant attention that must be paid to security updates.

A number of large software vendors make discounts available to academic institutions including the Early Childhood Sector. On the face of it this seems like a very good deal although the costs in many cases are still well beyond the budgets of many centres.

There is a deeper issue surrounding these discounts however and that is centered around the Te Whariki princples that guide New Zealand education. Te Whariki is a philosophy that includes the parents and extended family or whanau in the childs education. Parents and whanau are therefore encouraged to participate at all levels with the child and the education centre. At a basic level this inclusion can involve the exchange of electronic information between the centre and the childs family.

The issue is that while the centre may have received a discount on software the parents generally don't have that luxury. What might cost the centre less than $300 has cost parents over $900 in the past for fully licensed versions. In many cases there is also a requirement to upgrade the hardware for the later versions of office productivity applications.

By using Open Source programs not only can the Kindergarten or Childcare Centre produce high quality materials about the child, this information, and the programs themselves, can be freely shared with the parents. Open Source programs in these environments enable very positive outcomes for the centres, the children and the parents and whanau.

The programs we recommend the centres install and use are:

Firefox
We recommend installing and using the Firefox browser on every computer in the centre. Firefox has a number of security features built in that have only recently begun appearing in later versions of other browsers. The main feature of use to early childhood is the automatic blocking of pop-up windows. This reduces the risk of inappropriate material suddenly appearing during guided use of the internet by children (and adults!). Other advantages include the separation of the browser and the underlying operating systems leading to a reduced risk of virus and trojan activity.
Thunderbird
We recommend installing and using the Thunderbird email client on every computer in the centre. Thunderbird is another program runs separately from the underlying operating system thus enjoys a reduced risk of virus and trojan compromise. Other benefits of Thunderbird include the ability to 'learn' what you consider to be junk mail or 'spam'. Over time Thunderbird will start to identify email that it thinks is spam and separate it or delete it automatically depending on your wishes.
OpenOffice
We recommend installing the OpenOffice productivity suite on every computer in the centre. OpenOffice uses the ISO standard Open Document Format to store information and thus documents, spreadsheets and presentations may be shared with users of other operating systems such as Apple Mac's and Linux based systems. OpenOffice is also compatible with many previous versions of Microsoft Word and so you can still interact with people or businesses that haven't yet discovered the benefits OpenOffice provides. OpenOffice may be used for anything you currently use Microsoft Word for e.g. childrens profiles, Newsletters, presentations and so forth. It can also be used to produce html output for inclusion on websites or on the parent and visitor information kiosks that some centres have set up. These can be relatively low powered systems that prospective and current parents and visitors can use to find out about your teaching practices, safety information, current newsletters or other items.
TuxPaint
TuxPaint is a nice user friendly drawing program along similar lines to KidPix. When combined with the TuxPaint Stamps package you get a huge number of extra pictures and images (complete with sound effects!) that can be resized, rotated and flipped. There are a large number of drawing tools available ranging from the usual fine and fuzzy brushes through to magic wands and sparkle brushes. A number of visual effects are available as well including chalk, drip and block effects. TuxPaint may have been designed with kids in mind but it will appeal to the inner child in everyone.
Audacity
Audacity is an audio recording and sound effects manipulation program. You can record multiple tracks and combine them later ready to burn onto CD. The tools in Audacity allow you to change sound qualities, trim unwanted sound, adjust volumes and time shift track segments to create the perfect song or soundtrack. There are a number of effects available such as Wah Wah, reverse (does the Beatles 'White Album' really have a message?) and pitch controls (think Alvin and the Chipmunks). There are also speed controls and these have the capability of converting from 45 or 78 rpm to 33+1/3 for those that remember vinyl records. What this means is that even if you only have a 33+1/3 turntable you can record a 78rpm record on it and then use Audacity to speed up the recording by the correct amount. You can also save any old cassette tape based recordings you may have made in the past by recording them onto CD. Audacity is a powerful and fun tool to use but remember to respect any copyrights.
The GIMP
Don't like the way a photo looks? The GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP) is for you. It has a powerful toolset and some extended features that make it easy to remove red-eye, trim unwanted images and add highlights and interest to your photos. There are very good tutorials on how to use The GIMP available on the Internet. One of the simplest and most effective of these is how to add borders to photos. All the standard tools are available, brushes and airbrushes, trim, crop and rotate and advanced tools like dodge and burn. The GIMP is a lot of fun to use and you can easily produce very professional images.
Celestia
Ever dreamed of travelling to the stars? Celestia is to tool for you! The built in demo will take you on a quick guided tour of the solar system starting with the Earth then flying around the Sun and on out to Saturn... There is a navigation system so you can visit the different planets (Ever wanted to see what the Sun looked like from Mercury?). How about a trip to the stars? It's easy with Celestia.
Stellarium
Run your own Planetarium! With Stellarium you can see the night sky as it would be from anywhere on Earth, at any time you choose. Missed the Lunar eclipse? Not to worry. Set the date, time and location and see for yourself. If you have a data projector why not hook it up to the computer, point it at the ceiling and run Stellarium...

Other Open Source programs that might be of interest to you:

TrueCrypt
Things like USB memory sticks or flash drives are a popular and convenient way to transfer data between computers. You can for example take all your kids profiles home to work on if you need to. One of the challenges with this of course is that this information is very sensitive, childrens names and addresses and so forth. If you lose the USB key then who has access to that information? With TrueCrypt you can encrypt that data automatically so that it can't be read by anyone else and so even if you do lose the USB memory stick the data is still secure.
Clamwin
Clamwin is an Open Source anti virus program. It's not automated so you need to tell it what files to check for viruses however it does have a very good detection rate. Anti virus protection needs to be run on every computer in your centre evn though they are not connected to the Internet as viruses can be transmitted via USB memory keys as well.

The programs mentioned above are just a small set of what is available on The OpenDisc. It also contains drawing tools like Inkscape, desktop publishing with Scribus and animation tools like Blender. We suggest that you investigate these other programs and use them wherever you see fit. Remember, you can copy this disc as many times as you like, give copies away to whoever you want and use the programs on as many computers as you want. In fact, we strongly encourage you to do so.